Saturday, July 22, 2006

Aesthetic Weight

July 22

At last a chance to pursue a topic that no one has ever heard of and see if there is anybody who is the least bit interested.

Kind of like duende. In fact, the topic is a lot like duende. For new readers you’ll have to find my post on duende, which is called "Watching for Devils." But back to the related subject of aesthetic weight.

I first learned of it in Bob Treser’s acting class at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1960. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it mentioned since, but the concept has stayed with me. Mr. Treser also introduced me to the concept of duende, but he didn’t call it that, he described it as a “kind of spark, that makes the audience watch a particular actor even if the stage is full of others.” That became duende when it was pinpointed a few years later on the Merv Griffin Show.

Aesthetic weight means the comparative psychological heft that certain actors have. It is divided into “heavies” and “lights,” with some degrees allowed in between. More on that later, but let’s explore the basics, heavies and lights. The idea is that certain roles require heavies – not in the old theatre sense of villains, and not in the theatre sense of “fat men” either. Almost every character in O’Neill is heavy. When a role is heavy, you need a heavy actor to play it. I’m not talking appearance, exactly, but (as with duende) appearance has a part in it. Stanley Kowalski is a heavy. Blanche has to be reasonably heavy too, to hold the stage with him. Everybody in Streetcar Named Desire is heavy, except maybe the boy who delivers the newspapers ("I never knew the morning star made deliveries!"). Every character in Blythe Spirit is light, but Madame Arcati has to be a light-heavy and so does the ghost Elvira. Hamlet is heavy, Ophelia is light. Willie Loman is heavy, everyone else in Death of a Salesman is light. To cast The Glass Menagerie, you must choose the lightest light in town to play the role of Laura. I'm told Calista Flockheart was superb in the role. All the characters are light, including that old bobcat Amanda (casting a heavy in that role is a mistake all too many directors make), but Laura may be the lightest light in American drama.

It’s more important to cast actors of the same weight when they are playing against each other. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are both heavy. Jennifer Lopez is heavy; Ben Affleck is light. The heaviest actors around are Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Meryl Streep is heavy, but as a woman she is not as heavy as the heaviest man; in that sense she is a heavy light. She is well cast with Robert Redford, who is a light heavy.

Cher is heavy. Nicholas Cage is too. Ben Stiller is heavy. Gwyneth Paltrow is light. Clint Eastwood is light. Jim Carrey is heavy; Robin Williams is light. Jay Leno is heavy; David Letterman is light. Simon Cowell is heavy, Paula Abdul is a light heavy, and Ryan Seacrest is light. It’s always easier to name the heavies because they stay in your mind, while the lights fade away. Jennifer Anniston is a light heavy with a lot of duende. Sarah Jessica Parker is a heavy. Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin are heavy, but lighter than Pacino and DeNiro. Jack Nicholson is a heavy light. Shelly Duvall is a light heavy.

You can be beautiful and talented and still be light – so light it’s hard to remember that you were there. Diane Baker, a movie star of the 1950’s, is hardly remembered by anyone today. Annette Bening is a light. Shirley MacLaine is a light. Steven Martin is a light. Diane Keaton is a heavy light.

Liza Minelli is a heavy. Dudley Moore was a heavy. The two heaviest actresses in screen history were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, unless Tallulah Bankhead is in contention. Or Marlene Dietrich.

So there you are: The concept. See what you can do with it. It’s not subjective, like duende. Heavies are always heavy; they can lose weight and bleach their hair, but there’s no disguising it. Sometimes lights dye their hair brunette, but it doesn’t work.

And what does it mean in the real world? Nothing that I can think of. You may meet someone who mesmerizes a room without any effort – maybe he’s a heavy, or maybe he’s possessed by duende. But the only place either concept really applies is in the world of make believe. So maybe, the man with all that aesthetic weight should consider going onstage. He can work toward playing King Lear someday.


Finding Fair Hope said...

Major oops to those readers who came on between 5 and 9 A.M. CST -- there was a spelling error that was so glaring I couldn't believe it! I don't know how to operate Spell Check very well on my new laptop, and I'm usually pretty good -- so I seldom use it. Picked up my old Webster's and saw that there was no "new" spelling of the word aesthetic, but I still think there should be.

Benedict S. said...

Great topic. My cohorts in the DC Spinoza Group have chided the master's neglect of the whole area of aesthetics, and I have taken their concern as a personal challenge. Unfortunately, what with all my "blogging" duties I have made little headway. I suspect, however, that aesthetic weight can be understood as a function of the mixture of the same joy and sorrow that form the foundation of Spinoza's psychology. Works of art -- and the actors themselves are in this case to be considered as works of art -- serve as the outward "causes" of the emotions we associate with the aesthetic experience. While all works of art do in fact, upon reflection, seem to be things of joy, considered in themselves, each generates an emotional impact all its own, some of which are joyful, others sorrowful. That's where the "lightness" and "heaviness" you spoke of come into being.

I would not go so far as to say that an aesthetically heavy actor embues his roles with sorrow, but I will say that when we experience his performance we are touched by an expectation of an emotion we associate with fear and its close cousins, all of which are emotions of sorrow. We get the sense that "these people are capable of ourageous acts."

This sense of expectation could be seen as one of the qualities that distinguishes the plastic and static arts. Paintings, for example, do not so much create expectation as immediate impressions. While the subject matter of some paintings may engender an expectation of something that is about to happen -- I have in mind a painting of Turner's in which we see a man who is about to be attacked by a shark -- the tone of the painting, and not its theme, are what we would associate with an actor's aesthetic heaviness or lightness. The role the actor plays out would in that sense constitute the fulfillment of the expectation we have immediately obtained from our sight of him. I would link the "playing out" to the impending bite of the shark in the Turner painting, a mere incidental to the heavibess already created by our first glance.

One of Audrey Hepburn's most intense roles was as a blind woman alone in her home with a burglar. (You'll probably know the name of the film, but I cannot recall it.) Because of Miss Hepburn's characteristic lightness we're led to expect the very worst, since we cannot imagine that she could amass the sort of strength -- the kind hatred gives birth to -- she will need in order to cope. If, for instance, Barbara Stanwyck had been cast in that role, we would immediately sense her heaviness and thus lighten the intensity of the threat: Miss Stanwyck could more easily than Miss Hepburn be imagined as a "coper."

There are, of course, roles that place coping demands on actors noted for their lightness. I'm sure that Tolstoy saw the necessity for creating Princess Mary Bolkonsky as a "heavy" person -- strong and able, -- as a counterweight to Natasha Rostov. How else could the latter cope with the death of her beloved Andre if the Prince's sister Mary had not been there with her to tend the man as he lay dying? Lightness and heaviness were brought together (by a plot contrivance) to make Natasha believable in her moment of greatest stress. That Audrey Hepburn was cast as Natasha and the "heavier" Anna-Maria Ferrero as Mary was one of the strokes of genius that made the otherwise flawed film memorable.

I hope this brief Spinozist analysis of aesthetic weight creates at least a smidgen of disagreement so that the encounter can become a learning experience for me. As I say, I have a far piece to go before I can adequately defend the aesthetics of the Ethics.

Finding Fair Hope said...

I guess I'll have to show off a little in response to benedict's comments. The movie was Home Before Dark but I think we must characterize Audrey Hepburn as a heavy for our purposes. Heavy does not imply villainy or evil -- it is simply the quality that makes us recall certain actors vividly. I cannot think of a single Audrey movie, even that one with the equally heavy Gregory Peck or the other with the equally heavy Humphrey Bogart, that she was not the face that comes to mind when thinking of the movie. As to her vulnerability to forces beyond her control, she was heavily vulnerable. Barbara Stanwyck was never so.

beenandgone said...

This could spawn a whole series of point and counterpoint discussions. It might get so heated that a crocheting needle attack could take place. If not that, veiled threats emailed are a certainty. It might even spill over in a widespread conflict on which is the best color for your car. You've lifted the lid on Pandora's box.

If you think I am bugging you are...well, one of the few times, correct. Ouch! Smile, it's only a joke. For your information, duende is a Spanish word that means "mischievous elf" or "a good natured gremlin", not up to the malice of a goblin.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Someone hasn't been reading all the posts on my blog. The duende term came from an earlier post, and "mischievous elf" is a delightful way to describe it. It doesn't not equate with aesthetic weight, but does figure in to the picture.

Could be my mistake, but I got from the Merv Griffin show in the '60s that it was the Italian word for "devils," with roughly the same meaning as you say. Read this post again and see if you agree about Jennifer Aniston. In the meantime, I'm getting my crochet hooks ready for the next bout.

Benedict S. said...

I understand duende as a description of that characteristic actors have that causes them to be noticed, as you said, on a crowded screen. Consequently. a character with duende may be either a "heavy" or a "light." Mitchem had loads of duende and was a "heavy." I would never have thought of Andrey Hepburn as anything other than a "light," but she also was heavily laden with duende.

I agree that "heaviness" has nothing to do with villainy, but the "heavy" actor just seems to be capable of villainy, whereas the last thing you would suspect of a "light" was that he or she would ever do anything of the villainous sort.

But as I said, I'm learning here, so please set me straight where I am wrong.

Yes, "Home Before Dark" and Julia Roberts.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Paul Bettany, who played the albino in The Da Vinci Code is a light. Christopher Walken is a light. Anthony Hopkins? I would say a heavy light. All can be pretty scary.

aristophanes said...

To talk theater is not to talk movie . Yet, the ideas represented in the joy of seeing a particular actor are similar. Spanish dramatist Lorca supposedly 'suffered'with the joy of duende, struggling to present the slices of life in his time and place with his own personal demons, but he was no actor. Actors ,and others, are born with a kind of crazy look in their eyes and an inner urge to present themselves to audiences for the thrill of it. Other type performances are not the same since the pretense of being someone else is not the main idea as in theater. I learned this topic to be stage presence; the drawing of audience attention even with no lines or specific contribution to a scene. This is not to say that out of context actions or sudden movements to get attention are the same. Out of theater, on the street, you might correlate duende with charisma, like Hitler possessed with a dark maniacal effect. Or elan , or joie de vivre, with an added sense as if the person has a dread disease, and/or contrarily, as one who has cheated death. With the attentions of animal magnetism one can always summon up the vampires intent on the dark side. On stage, a quality that all actors seem to seek is that which lures the audience eye, not necessarily mind, to himself without digressing from scene's aim. Quite the contrary, he wants to contribute appropriately if he's any good. Once I heard a story about WC Fields losing his audience to 'hamming', a pool shooting scene, wherein he cracked the offender on the noggin with his cue stick. The knocked noodle actor deserved it; that's not duende. All else aside, I wonder about Lorca's possible effect on your 1960's instructor. Do you suppose he really knew all about it, or was he blowing smoke of his own duende. Seems to me that actors really do not have duende on stage. It is the characters that they portray, and the actor's "gift" is the ability to maintain stage presence fending off stage fright and possible embarassment. Heavy or light makes no difference, it is the characters being fit to actors.

Finding Fair Hope said...

With due deference to the early creator of comedy onstage, I don't think we're talking about the same thing here. Perhaps I should have left out the mention of duende in a post about aesthetic weight. They are related, in that a generous portion of duende contributes the the aesthetic weight of an actor, but the term aesthetic weight applies only to performers. It is an immeasurable quality of weight an actor carries into any role he plays. It is a certain amount of physical power that translates almost as a feeling of heaviness, making one actor more suited to some roles than others. The role of Liliom, for example, or Regina in The Little Foxes begs for an actor with heavy asthetic (not physical) weight. Puck must be light. The concept is as valid for the stage as for films.

Duende a more ephemeral or whimsical term, simply means the magic that some actors seem to have that makes them stand out, and almost sparkle, in any role they essay.

The discussion of either may seem frivolous, and by it I don't mean to suggest anything profound. It's a diverting topic that makes a conversation lively. It is meant to stimulate and will probably never get written about in any doctoral thesis.

peterpan said...

I'm mulling this over at this very moment with light,light heavy lightheartedness.

filmflam mama said...

I guess I'll have to show off a little in response to finding fair hope's comment in response to benedict s's comment: The Audrey Hepburn movie alluded to is called Wait until Dark.

Insofar as who's light and heavy, the absolute truth of this topic is as knowable and significant as the best movie candy of all time. (Milk Duds) For my two cents, the heaviest actors are those who won't fall easily into either category. Now that's an actor.

Finding Fair Hope said...

The flimflam lady is right about the movie title, meaning that I was wrong -- and also about Milk Duds (but I'm also big on Raisinets when I'm in a candy mood).

You mean there are actors so versatile that they have no aethetic weight? Let's try to think of one. Brando? He was a heavy even before he got fat. Monty Clift? Always a heavy. Julie Harris? Always a light. Helen Hayes? A heavy light. Let me know who you're thinking of, ffl.

jon said...

I have a question. What is the effect of an unknown actor as to the nature of aesthetic his weight? Only an initial performance can define it, right? What about next time? You never mentioned James Dean whom many tout as what I'd
call "aesthetic-ist" of all, maybe.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Calm down, jon. I know typing's not your thing, but you're making it difficult to decipher your question here. How does an actor know his own aesthetic weight before he's been onstage? He doesn't. But at his first audition a director will have some idea, and may even suggest he read for a different role. The actor doesn't need to know his aesthetic weight; it may even hamper him from auditioning when he would get the part. Say, if everybody who reads is light, and he's the heaviest light in the room, he might get to play the heavy!

As for James Dean, he was a heavy light, or a light heavy, made heavy mostly because he was overloaded with both talent and duende. He was so good even a casual observer would say things like, "Too bad that boy can't talk because he's a great actor!" then find out in the next movie that he actually could talk. Too bad he only made three.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Jon, how's this for an example: Johnny Cash (even if he hadn't elected to wear black always) was as heavy as they come. June Carter was as light as air.

jon said...

If true, maybe that is why so many wear black, they want to be heavies too. His voice for sure is one chosen to hear and his story one to be heard, but as an actor to... ? Recently took my true love to a movie ,' A Prairie Home Companion' where in I tended to watch Lily Tomlin more than Meryl Streep when in the same scenes. So according to your classifications, Meryl, heaviest of all , is out heavied by Lily. Actually it was hard to concentrate on any of them much because the shots were too short like the director had ADD . Yes, the idea was to show the contrast of the show to life behind the show, but Lily still took the scenes for me even when shot obviously for Meryl. Pre-categorizing seems acdemic any way. To be sure of actors aesthetic weights, they should shuffle all the roles around until each has played against the other. True aesthetic weight would foam to the surface of the viewer's attention no matter the role.......never took typing and sometimes don't proofread...sorry

Finding Fair Hope said...

I thought I said Meryl Streep was a light heavy. She is not as heavy as Cher, and I think you're right, probably Lily Tomlin is heavier. Johnny Cash didn't have to act, he was so heavy. (He didn't have to wear black either.) Have I made my point that this has nothing to do with acting talent? Acting talent adds aethetic weight, but not always enough when the other actor is heavier.

You are also right, as a theatre director, that knowing about this isn't much help. You gotta do the best with what you get anyway. It's just something to think about -- but not too much.

Robyn Coburn said...

I also studied with Bob, in the late 80's in Wollongong, Australia. The concept of Aesthetic Weight was one of the most intriguing things I learnt from him, and very useful for casting. I don't remember him talking about duende, though.

Yours is the only mention of Aesthetic Weight I've seen online. I also remember Bob talking about how actors often become "heavier" as they age, and that most of the time when people discuss an actor being "miscast" it comes down to an intuitive understanding of aesthetic weight.

Deciding on an actor's aesthetic weight seems subjective to me. You name some as "heavy" that I might disagree with. I wish Bob had developed the concept further, and perhaps published it. Maybe there would have been fewer blank stares in my experience. Maybe it isn't a linear continuum, but a 3D concept.

Be that as it may, it goes a long way to explaining what's so very wrong with "Meet the Fokkers".

Mary Lois said...

Thanks for commenting on this very old post, Robyn. Do I understand from you that Robert Treser was teaching and/or directing in Australia in the 1980's. I thought he was still in California. I'd like to hear from you. Please email me at marylois@gmail. com and we can discuss esthetic weight and other things.

Jasmin Egner said...

Thanks so much for this post! I am currently studying Acting at the Esper Studio in NYC, working with fantastic teachers. During a feedback session in On Camera class I was told my aesthetic weight is heavy and I while I had a clue what it meant, time didn't allow to go deeper into the matter during class. This post has helped me connect some dots!

Mary Lois said...

Glad to see this post has validity for students of acting and the theatre! Thanks for your comment, Jasmin, and best wishes for your future!